Failure – The Obama Administration’s Foreign Policy Legacy

I’m fascinated by disaster and failure. I’m not talking natural disaster; although fascinating in themselves (who around back then does not recall when Mount St. Helens blew up in 1980?) natural disasters don’t provide teachable moments the way a man-made failure or disaster does. Soon the Discovery Channel and The Science Channel will simulcast a scripted movie about the Challenger disaster. The movie is based on Dr. Richard Feynman’s memoir “What Do You Care What Other People Think” and will invariably show how Science and the human analytical mind went from a cloud of smoke and debris at 50,000 feet to the reason for the disaster: an O-ring seal in a solid rocket booster. Such failure analysis is why travel on large aluminum jets is the safest method of transportation in human history, going from perhaps the deadliest form of transport to the safest in less than a century. Such success came about through hard detective work the scene of each disaster, followed by a long period of investigation and analysis where the failure was pinpointed and most importantly, having the lessons learned applied to the rest of the industry.

The bible for those interested in the study of failure is German professor Dietrich Dorner’s 1996 book, The Logic of Failure. The book is based on a set of cognitive experiments done with software simulating a small town’s society in the US, and a fictional area in the Sahel. The studies found that while participants came from varied walks of life and backgrounds, “People court failure in predictable ways.” It then ties the experiments to real life failures such as the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl. As a systems analyst involved with complex multi-million dollar software development programs, I consider the book “must reading” for everyone in IT. Feel free to pass along a copy to those behind the Obamacare rollout.

Five years ago the people of Iraq had, thanks to the blood of thousands of American and allied soldiers, achieved a level of freedom unparalleled in their history. The national sport of kite flying was legal again and girls headed to school in Afghanistan. al Qaeda and its affiliates were on the run and confined to lawless patches in northern Pakistan, northern Nigeria and Somalia. Iran was boxed in between biting sanctions that undermined the regime internally, successful American military operations on either side of it, and an Israel ready, willing and backed by American leadership to attack Iran to stop it from acquiring nuclear weapons. China was busy flooding the world with cheap crap, content to use North Korea as its proxy to stir up trouble in favor of the regime in Beijing. Our relationship with Russia had begun drifting away from engagement towards confrontation over its aggression towards Georgia, but Russia was clearly a state in decline both internally and internationally. Even Syria was seen as a player, with Democrats having genuflected at Bashir Assad’s feet, Nancy Pelosi having claimed “the road to peace begins in Damascus” in 2007, four years before Vogue’s schmaltzy interview with the Assad family, “A Rose In the Desert.”

Today Iraq is a client state of Iran, its skies filled with Iranian cargo planes resupplying the Assad regime in Syria and Hezballah in Lebanon, its social fabric once again ripped by car bombs as the Sunni/Shi’a war rages on the ground. The Obama administration, convinced of its failure before it took office walked away from American success in Iraq by its refusal to negotiate a status of forces agreement with Baghdad. Historians will one day ask “Who lost Iraq?” and the answer will be Barack Obama. Immediately after setting up their base in Afghanistan in 2001, the Marines buried a piece of steel taken from the World Trade Center rubble on the site. Soon the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies will reclaim this as a war trophy as the kites and girls disappear from the streets, and the music that has filled the air in Kabul since 2001 will be replaced once again with silence punctuated by gunfire and explosions. Again historians will ask “Who condemned these people to savagery? Who lost Afghanistan?” Again the answer will be President Obama, a man who once called Afghanistan “the good war.”

After taking power President Obama fluttered around the world on what critics like me called his “Apology tour,” apologizing for American misdeeds both real and imagined, in the belief that the new-found humility would please our friends and sway our enemies. The Obama Administration has accomplished exactly the opposite. Today Iran is expanding its “Shi’a Crescent” throughout the Middle East, and the only ones standing in the way is Israel in an unlikely (and unspoken) alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. This after a popular rebellion took the streets in 2009 that could have changed the course of History, but it received no hint of support or backing from the Obama administration and it was ruthlessly crushed. It will be decades before the people rise up against the theocracy, if they ever do.

Today from Morocco across northern Africa to the Sinai, and from Nigeria across the continent to Somalia Africa burns with Muslim extremists allied with al Qaeda. Obama’s support of the rebellion to replace Mohammar Khaddafi in Libya has opened a Pandora’s Box of weaponry built over decades by Libya’s Great Loon, handing AK-47s, RPGs, and anti-aircraft missiles to everyone with an axe to grind and a Koran burning a hole in their hearts. Where there had been one failed state 5 years ago, Somalia, there are now at least 3 (Somalia, Mali, Libya) with numerous others (Algeria, Chad, Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Western Sahara) circling the drain. After Khaddafi’s fall al Qaeda training camps sprouted like mushrooms across North Africa and the Sub-Sahara, breathing the lawlessness that the Libyan Debacle created, and repaying the Obama administration for its “lead from behind” strategy by killing an American ambassador and his three bodyguards in the first such incident in 30 years.

Although the administration’s failure vis-a-vis China is not as bad as the disaster it has created in the Middle East, the Obama Doctrine of placating our foes while dissing our friends has been noticed in Asian capitals. South Korea is developing closer ties with China at the same time Japan rearms and prepares to ditch its anti-war constitution ghost written by Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Nations like Pakistan who haven’t really decided whether they are American allies or its enemies see no downside to throwing their lots in with the Chinese or Iranians. Pakistan even provides China the tail-section of a top-secret stealth helicopter used in the operation to kill Osama Bin Laden, America’s enemy number 1 watching porn in air conditioned comfort on Pakistani soil. There is no blow-back, no consequences suffered for entertaining the man responsible for the deaths of 3,000 Americans, and none for handing over the tail rotor section to America’s greatest military adversary. And to top it off, the true hero of the event, a local doctor who had the guts to help the Americans confirm Bin Laden’s identity, sits in jail as a traitor to his people. If anything playing up to America’s adversaries almost wins respect from the Obama administration itself. China understands this best, waging a cyber war against the US government and private industry without retribution.

Then there’s Europe. When the Obama Administration hasn’t sacrificed its allies to appease its enemies in Teheran and Moscow, it bugged their phones, proving yet again this administration’s inability to differentiate friend from foe. “Everyone does it,” is not an acceptable excuse for a superpower. There is absolutely no reason the US should be bugging Angela Merkel’s phone just as there is no reason it should be spying on 10 Downing Street. Perhaps the mushy-headedness that comes with moral relativism has blinded the administration to the differences of say, between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin, or David Cameron and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The “Special Relationship” with the UK is special for a reason, one that is much older than the inhabitants of the West Wing and much more sublime than the political wonks can comprehend. Ditto the German Chancellor. Frau Merkel was born in East Germany and has first hand experience with illegal and unjustified surveillance. Unlike some of her predecessors, she has not risen to power on an anti-American platform, and has done an exemplary job of aligning the interests of Germany with the broader interests of Europe and the United States. Spying on her was a stupid idea that should never have been approved, and once approved, it should have been cancelled, and if not cancelled it should never have been revealed. Yet a contract DBA waltzed off with the keys to the entire American Intelligence in the worst espionage failure since Klaus Fuchs handed the Soviets the Bomb. Again, no consequences. No one fired let alone jailed.

Many on the right have concluded that this is all by plan, that the Obama administration and his Democratic party supporters have been intent on taking the ship of state and intentionally running it aground because they are socialists or communists. In the Irving Kristol Lecture to the American Enterprise Institute on February 10, 2004 Charles Krauthammer suggests it is more complex and subtle than that:

“What I do know is that today it is a mistake to see liberal foreign policy as deriving from anti-Americanism or lack of patriotism or a late efflorescence of 1960s radicalism.

On the contrary. The liberal aversion to national interest stems from an idealism, a larger vision of country, a vision of some ambition and nobility – the ideal of a true international community. And that is: To transform the international system from the Hobbesian universe into a Lockean universe. To turn the state of nature into a norm-driven community. To turn the law of the jungle into the rule of law – of treaties and contracts and UN resolutions. In short, to remake the international system in the image of domestic civil society…

And to create such a true international community, you have to temper, transcend and, in the end, abolish the very idea of state power and national interest. Hence the antipathy to American hegemony and American power. If you are going to break the international arena to the mold of domestic society, you have to domesticate its single most powerful actor. You have to abolish American dominance, not only as an affront to fairness but also as the greatest obstacle on the whole planet to democratized international system where all live under self-governing international institutions and self-enforcing international norms.” – Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passion, Pastimes and Politics

Seen in this light, Obama’s foreign policy has not been a failure at all. It has accomplished exactly what it was intended to do. It has weakened America’s foreign policy hand across the board. America’s military is weakened through political purges of its officer corps, lack of direction and budget cuts. Its diplomatic corps is undermined by the lack of protection of its staff, as proven in Benghazi, by the White House’s high-handedness shown towards America’s closest friends the UK and Israel, and the spying program targeting American allies as well as its enemies that State Department personnel are forced to explain in their host countries. Its adversaries Syria, Iran and North Korea are all in better positions than they were five years ago. Ditto China and Russia. As the US weakens its enemies strengthen, and its allies are then forced to either band together (EU standing up to Russia and encouraging Ukraine to join, ASEAN nations co-coordinating efforts to balance China) or leave its sphere of influence entirely (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps Israel in the Middle East, South Korea in East Asia).

Obama has domesticated America on the international stage, to use Krauthammer’s term: so now what? Where is the Golden Age promised by Locke and the internationalists? If they are correct, a humbled America should encourage its enemies to stop their own military buildups (they don’t need offensive military capability with America’s gone). North Korea and Iran no longer need nukes now that American nukes are rusting away awaiting destruction as Obama unilaterally disarms. Without American backing Israel should engage its enemies diplomatically in a desperate bid to secure peace with the Palestinians. The world should be much better today than it was five years ago.

Is it? I suppose that depends on your perspective. Five years ago Americans could have traveled safely throughout Africa except for one nation Somalia. Today I’d hesitate to walk through the narrow streets of Zanzibar as I once did freely nearly two decades ago, and have struck Valley of the Kings in Egypt off my bucket list until further notice. Northern Kenya, Mali, Eritrea, Mauritania, Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Western Sahara, and Libya are now no-go areas for Westerners. I suppose that’s great if you can’t help but shout Allahu Akhbar every time you touch an AK-47, but for the rest of us things have gotten worse not better under the new regime.

Dietrich Doerner writes, “For them (people who failed most often at complex analytical tests) to propose a hypothesis was to understand reality; testing that hypothesis was unnecessary. Instead of generating hypotheses, they generated ‘truths’.” The Obama administration came to power proposing a hypothesis, that the world would be a better place with the United States weakened. It treated this hypothesis as a truth, steadfastly refusing to let go of it, sacrificing ambassadors, diplomatic relationships built over generations, and American influence in the process. When Doerner’s study participants failed, they invariably blamed others for their failures just as the Administration has focused the blame on the GOP.

When the Obama administration took power I and many others had hoped it would govern from the center, that things wouldn’t be as dire as we had feared. We hoped that it would try its crazy ideas, learn they didn’t work, then try something else. But they didn’t learn. They stuck to their “truths.” Five years on our foreign policy is a shambles, America weaker and friendless as it has been at no other time in its history. The disaster is worse than we expected, and we still have 3 full years left in this president’s term.

Will America be able to survive this epic failure? Thirty-two years ago Ronald Reagan took power and turned around foreign policy debacles of the previous Carter administration pretty quickly. Will a Republican president be able to do the same after eight years of disaster? And what if the GOP selects the wrong candidate and Hillary Clinton wins in 2016? How much failure can this country accept and still survive?

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